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How Chester the puppet sparked battle over race and free speech in South Africa

A case involving a right-wing singer and a puppet raises the question of how a 'rainbow nation' just two decades removed from a system of rigid segregation balances free speech with a persistent need to heal racial divides.

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    South African comedian Conrad Koch poses for a photograph with his puppet named Chester Missing, at his home in Cape Town, South Africa, Nov. 10, 2014.

    Ventriloquist Koch challenged a gag order against his puppet, and strongly denyied allegations made by Afrikaans musician, Steve Hofmeyr, that tweets criticizing the singer amounted to hate speech.
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Small and thin, his head hunched, Chester Missing listened wide-eyed to the man laying out the legal charges against him — defamation, harassment, inciting death threats.

Then again, wide-eyed is just about the only look Chester Missing is capable of — because Chester Missing is a South African puppet.

But that detail mattered little to the team of lawyers who gathered in Johannesburg last week to defend his right to lob “robust criticism” at a prominent right-wing musician. Nor did it appear important to the white-separatist activist delivering an impassioned plea for Chester to be legally silenced.

While Chester may not be human, the question at the heart of his case is one of modern South Africa’s most constantly and hotly debated: How does a "rainbow nation" just two decades removed from a system of rigid segregation balance free speech with the need to heal the racial divide?

From a recent human rights probe about a popular township rap song demanding South African Indians "go back across the ocean" to recurrent debates within universities on whether to punish white students for dressing in blackface at on-campus parties, the question of what boundaries should be set around hateful racial comments is constantly churning here.  

“This case foregrounds a much deeper, under-the-skin problem in South Africa,” says Dale McKinley, an activist and spokesperson for the Right2Know Campaign, a free speech group. “It reminds people that much of the so-called process of reconciliation that happened here in the 1990s was quite surface level, and beneath it are many whites who still harbor very racist attitudes that don’t often make it into the public conversation."

It all started with a tweet

The spat that brought Chester Missing — and his human handler, the ventriloquist Conrad Koch — to the Johannesburg court began in late October with a single tweet.

“Sorry to offend but in my books Blacks were the architects of Apartheid. Go figure," wrote singer Steve Hofmeyr to his 125,000 followers on Oct. 23. By way of clarification, Mr. Hofmeyr — who moonlights as an advocate for a white separatist state — quickly explained he meant that South Africa’s rigid system of segregation had been a necessary way of “institutionalis[ing] a little distance” between racial groups that couldn’t get along.

“If folk did not want to share a country with you, why is it always their fault?” he wrote in an explanatory post on Facebook. “If there has hardly been a prosperous black-led country, it isn’t always other people’s fault.”

Enter Chester Missing piloted by Mr. Koch, who is famous for Stephen Colbert-style interviews with South Africa’s political heavyweights on a popular comedic newscast, Late Night News.

Within hours of the original tweet he had taken to his own feed with a stream of vitriol against Hofmeyr, calling him the “voice for a privileged, self-righteous community of bigots” and demanding that sponsors of events at which the singer was scheduled to appear immediately withdraw their support.

A week later, Hofmeyr shot back, winning a temporary protection order against puppet and handler, saying their tweets constituted harassment and had subjected the singer to numerous threats against his life.

Suddenly, a Twitter spat had become an interrogation of South Africa’s free speech laws, and soon the country’s most prominent freedom of speech lawyers jumped into the fray.

“Criticism of a public figure's controversial statements about apartheid is protected speech, and far from harassment, constitutes speech that is important in our democracy,” says Dario Milo, a partner at the Johannesburg-based firm Webber Wentzel, which routinely defends journalists and media outlets and was a member of Chester Missing’s legal team.

“While the Harassment Act can be used to stop truly harassing electronic communications, it was an abuse of the legislation to seek a … protection order in circumstances where what was happening was a critic was being silenced,” Mr. Milo says.

'Down with racism'

Chester Missing wasn’t ready to go down without a fight. And on Nov. 27 he headed to court.

“Chester is looking ready. He had his head waxed, has a tie on and even borrowed clothes from his friend Pinocchio,” Koch explained to a reporter outside the court.

Once inside, he listened quietly as activist Dan Roodt, speaking on behalf of Hofmeyr, explained that, “Steve is a member of the minority which is suffering extreme violence in this country.”

Ultimately, however, magistrate Naren Sewnarain roundly dismissed the notion that the puppet was guilty of hate speech, and summarily lifted the gag order.

But the two sides weren’t three steps out of the courtroom before their debate began again in earnest.

“You can defame us all you like, we [the Afrikaners] are here to stay,” Roodt said, swatting the puppet as Chester bobbled behind him towards the court’s exit, screaming “phansi, racism, phansi!” (Down with racism, down!)

As Roodt brushed past him and out of the building, the puppet retreated, but not before someone in the crowd shouted out the classic call-and-response of anti-apartheid protestors: “Amandla!” (Power!)

“Awethu!” returned the crowd vigorously — to us! — as Chester Missing slipped quietly out of view. 

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